PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
On December 5, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, California, President Obama addressed the country on his view on the current state of the war against terrorists, particularly the Islamic State. Now joining us to talk about the speech is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is coming to us from Northampton, Massachusetts. He’s the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure, thanks.
JAY: So the speech was to assure Americans that America was strong and would defeat the terrorists, and there was no need to be hysterical against Islam. And he wanted to also, to pass use of force resolution through Congress for the fight against IS. What did you make of that speech?
PRASHAD: Well, you know–look, America has several serious problems that it needs to deal with. And each time one of these events takes place, you know, a terrorist attack, an attack on a school, an attack in a movie theatre, an attack at a workplace, this provokes a crisis, as it should, in the country. Generally when it is not a Muslim that conducts the attack, the debate in the country is around weapons. Whether there should be stricter gun laws, whether there should be mental health provisions, et cetera.
When a Muslim conducts these very same acts, the issue becomes about so-called terrorism. In fact, all of these attacks are terrorist attacks. You know, whether it’s young people going into a school and killing children, or it is some adult going into a workplace and shooting people. Every one of these is an act of terror. But there is this bifurcation that has taken place where when Muslims do it it’s called terrorism because it’s somehow linked to events in the Middle East, and when non-Muslims do it it’s considered a problem of guns and of mental health. Which is why it is curious–.
JAY: But in this, but in the San Bernar–Vijay, in the San Bernardino case the woman who was involved in this, in the shooting, apparently there were links on her Facebook directly swearing allegiance to the Islamic State, and such. I mean, I take your point that perhaps the psychosis, there’s something similar in the psychosis driving it. But there is a political aspect to this. These people claim to be doing it in the name of Islamic State and a sort of political, religious ideology.
PRASHAD: Her lawyers, at least the family lawyer, is contesting this. That [inaud.] to IS, that pledge to IS, came on some kind of third-party site. It’s not clear what has happened, fully. Yes, she has an interesting background that brings her from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, back to Pakistan, to radical seminaries of one kind or the other. But there’s a lot to be, I think, laid out before you can connect them directly, operationally, to IS. She may very well have pledged allegiance to IS. But remember that the kid who went and shot the African-American church in, I think in one of the Carolinas, had pictures of Rhodesian flags. And he had pledged allegiance, in that sense, to white supremist organizations.
So I think there needs to be some soberness in how we approach these horrible events that take place with incredible frequency. But what’s, I thought, puzzling, what I think is particularly puzzling, is that President Obama used this particular shooting to talk about American strategy in Syria and Iraq. I mean, the connection between the two seems to me a little far-fetched. You know, you don’t need to have the Islamic State creating a caliphate in northern Syria and in Iraq to inspire people to act in this way in the United States. There’ve been all kinds of people acting very violently, whether it’s in Europe or the United States. And they have previously not required some kind of Islamic State over there.
These are somewhat separate issues. His prognosis for the defeat of the Islamic State in his speech seemed curious. Because on the one side he kept saying, he used the old civil rights phrase, we shall overcome. You know, we’re going to take them out. Bush would have been more a cowboy in his language. He would have said something like we’ll take them out. Obama, more prosaic, we shall overcome.
But the other side of it, when he laid out the elements of how the United States is going to overcome, one should have far less confidence than we would have if we just followed his rhetoric. You know, he had a four-point agenda. The first point was that the United States with the Europeans are going to bomb across the Islamic State. But the United States has been bombing since August of 2014. The United States has the largest capacity to do this kind of bombing. And the damage has been relatively minimal, because IS is the kind of organization which has few targets that you can get [out]. Until recently, when the American bombers would go out to hit IS targets, 70 percent of their ordinance wasn’t dropped. They would return with their bombs intact.
So now to say that we have to go and bomb them harder, you know, bedevils the imagination. Suddenly am I to believe that targets have appeared? You know, he also said that we need to provide training to moderates. Well, we know now for several months that the number of moderates has whittled to the dozens. As it is, David Cameron of Britain said that there are 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria. And when he was asked to name the groups, the British government went silent.
So you know, these actual, actual pieces of the recipe of how to tackle the IS seemed warmed over and not credible. But I thought particularly, Paul, what seemed odd to me was to link this need for a serious and sober discussion about strategy vis-a-vis Iraq and Syria with something like the shooting in San Bernardino. That’s a different scale of issue. That has to do with disgruntled people, people who are disgruntled inside the United States, which have no operational connection to the Islamic State.
So I think that for him to have put these things together, you know, was rather opportunistic and unfortunate.
JAY: The rhetoric that’s flying about the Islamic State, particularly from the Republican side, Donald Trump is still what, something like 20 points ahead in the Republican race and is sounding more overtly, I don’t know, there’s not much other word than fascistic. And mostly calling for war with boots on the ground, and perhaps World War II-scaled type of bombing against IS. What do you make of how much influence that’s actually going to have on U.S. foreign policy?
PRASHAD: I mean, it’s certainly going to have some influence. Some impact on the thinking of the public. You know, despite the fact that this is extraordinarily poor judgment. You know, the the Islamic State has directly said they would look forward to the entry of the Americans, massive American force on the ground. Their English language magazine is called Dabiq. Dabiq is a town in northern Syria. They are fantasizing about the day when there will be a so-called apocalyptic final battle between the crusaders and the ISIS group in the town of Dabiq. You know, that’s what they’re looking forward to. This would bring enormous numbers of recruits on their side.
This is not exactly the most sober-minded way to go in that sense. Donald Trump is merely reading off a script from the ISIS magazine Dabiq. I think a much more important discussion needs to take place about the regional actors, about the kind of forces on the ground that are already there. You know, it struck me as remarkable that in both the Democratic and Republican debates people said things like, where’s the Arab boots on the ground? Well, what are they talking about? Yes, in Iraq there is the Iraqi army. That’s the Arab boots on the ground. In Syria there are various forces, including the Kurdish forces, including the Syrian-Arab army, including various moderate opposition groups that are, have gone silent for a while, and might be provoked to enter the battle against ISIS.
So there are forces that are available. There simply is not the politics that gives them confidence to go after ISIS. And this is something that the president didn’t talk about. I mean, he mentioned the Americans are involved in a political process. But this is more about solving the question of the so-called Mr. Assad must go slogan rather than to figure out a way to build confidence among these armies, that they can act in areas where ISIS is involved.
You know, as we’ve talked about, there’s a fear in American foreign policy. On the one side, in the early 2000s, they openly talked about the need to create tensions between Shias and Sunnis. In fact, there’s a WikiLeaks cable from Roebuck, who was at that time political councilor to the Damascus embassy, United States embassy in Damascus. And William Roebuck in that cable said that there needs to be, you know, coordination with the Saudis and the Egyptians to build up anxiousness among the Sunni population of Syria about Iranian influence, including intensified Shia-Sunni stresses.
What’s remarkable about that is that Roebuck was writing this at the same time as the United States could see in Iraq the dangers of sectarianism. They were fanning that flame inside Syria. So you know, you know that you fanned the flame. Now you have a situation where you want to indicate that only aerial bombardment will take care of ISIS, and you’re not willing to at least try and revive some of the old nationalistic or patriotic courts of Syrian nationalism or Iraqi–that can bind people across sectarian lines. These are the real conversations to have, not these warmed-over ideas of bombing, you know, of working with allies, et cetera. This is not a credible approach to the dilemma of ISIS.
JAY: One of the–some people have been calling for, I have to say even Bernie Sander is, he’s calling for Arab boots on the ground, as you’re saying, and he’s particularly challenging Saudi Arabia, who’s intervening in Yemen, which he criticizes. But then suggests that they perhaps should be the ones intervening in Syria. Can you imagine the Saudis actually directly getting involved in Syria, and what, what do you think of that?
PRASHAD: I mean, foreign policy is not Bernie Sanders’ forte, and particularly not West Asia. Saudi Arabia has never fought a war on the ground with its own troops. It used to rely on the Pakistanis. In the war on Yemen the Pakistani parliament refused to allow their troops to enter. There was some push to bring Moroccan troops to come and fight. The UAE government, United Arab Emirates government, hired Colombian mercenaries to come and fight. Whatever Saudi tanks tried to cross the border into Yemen were quickly dispatched by the various Yemeni forces, including the Houthis.
The Saudis are not a good ground fighting force. They just don’t have it. What they have is the capacity to buy billions of dollars worth of American arms, to warehouse those arms, to hire pilots from Pakistan and elsewhere, and also to train pilots of their own, and they can fly from the sky. But they don’t have a ground force. So how–you know, Sen. Sanders talks about the Saudis providing a ground force is something that I just don’t understand.
JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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